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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Nathaniel Mackey, Nod House

Nod House: A frog pond, Erzulie’s perfume, the poem I’m about to read invokes orgasmic ecstasies, evokes wave after musky wave, transported creatures not knowing their sex without feeling between their own legs. Frogs are deeply spermatic, odiferous, amphibian, “loves amphibious hush” Nathaniel Mackey writes (4), “frogs in a nearby / pond / infiltrating sleep” (5). Voicing gnosis, “we lost our bodies in, /  sound alone / survived” (9). Nod House voices the tensions between acknowledged and necessary sensual existence and inert stone, a voicing necessarily associated with the modalities of the jazz traditions in which Mackey is so expert, radio host, author of Moment’s Notice, and now he incites followers on Facebook to visit the jazz archives in honor of the birthdays of the multitudinous truly great musicians. In “Song of the Andoumboulou 62,”  it’s the most transcendent Sun Ra who is invoked. “Hoarse arkestral flutes laid a / rug of water (13).

He writes with memories of skipping flat stones out onto the tidal current. When I stand on the Pebble Beach of my ancestral island, the tide rush pulls the small stones out from under my feet. Balance affected, I lose equilibrium. I skip flat stone 3, 4 hops into the Western Way, a reach of the Atlantic, fetching dolphins and whales from Mount Desert Rock, “flat spun with could barely keep our feet” (13). These pebbles are found in the garland of flat disks depending from Kali’s chest. They are heads. Skipping stones are heads, “our own heads between finger and thumbs as if ours to throw” (15) –“as if ours” because the words are spoken in a trance state, a state in which, according to the anthropologists, one is neither one’s self or other (Victor Turner, Richard Schechner, “ghost moment, proof it lay / else- / where / prod.” A “cement sky” (10) in “Song of the Andoumboulou 62,” a world of flattened expectations. In one of my past lives, I gathered beach stones to pave the walkways of colonial Boston.

As well as flat stones, the journeying Andoumboulou appear as sticks, in the city of trance and redemption, a world like that of Voudon, organized around the “poto mitan,” at the crossroads, adding upward and downward to the cardinal directions. In the last poem of Nod House but one, “Anouman Sandrofia,” I find the crossroads bird, like the gallows’ bird. I am transported by a chorus, horns, contra bass of a stringed instrument, “guitar clang” (137). Multiple puns omnipresent thwart transcendence for all the headlong rush of gruff choruses, “bone we picked and picked at” (140 ). “Song of the Andoumboulou 85” voices “without sound sound’s immanence” (142). The line is thematic to gnosticism’s immaterial materiality. “Stick’s sublimity sent us reeling, a we that wasn’t we against one that was” (142). The object of poetry is to speak for an “a-we” in my reading of Kamau Brathwaite in “Letter Sycorax.”

Everyone limped, walked with a cane,” Legba, or Mackey himself as he prowled the halls at a recent academic conference. “Syllabic run was more alive that we / were, bass clack bugling disaster, brute sun outside the / nod / house door” (146), among the last phrases of Nod House. The lines snake down the page, dancing, marching chorus. Like Jazz the origin is in the blues and further back Africa. The poetics are projective some say. A fully imagined mythopoeia, always expanding, underlies the world these lines embody. In what follows my intention is to pay close attention to Mackey’s line.

“Blue Anuncia’s Bird Lute (after Bob Thompson).” The opening phrase “bedless” positions the reader on the journey that led to Bethlehem, Bedlam. Is this a false analogy on my part? In Bob Thompson’s Expulsion and Nativity (1964), the Virgin is blue, Mackey’s Blue Anuncia. The poem (40-42 of Nod House), seemingly an independent, free standing text, shares many properties with the serial poems mu and Song of the Andoumboulou. The multitudinous Andoumboulou travel toward a resolution that is not quite fully human, hardly divine. “Bedless trek / she saw them embarked on,” presents the travel of Joseph and Mary as cognate with that of the proto-human Andoumboulou. “Choked / earth they were strewn across” points to Dogon originary Sahel. It could be the journey of Joseph and Mary through Egypt. The “yet to-be world / on the tips of their tongues, / each in the other’s … indigent kin” points to the frequent moments of almost realization, swiftly reversed, the usual forward motion of Mackey’s poetry, forward and back, “lapsed earth.” An incestuous twinning of forces seems distinctive of the Andouboulou’s emergence, a future for which they prepare, for which I believe it’s the poet’s desire to prepares us, although that day fails again and again to arrive, often amounts to a momentary buzz. Suzanne Césaire writes somewhere of a poetry written purposefully for the not yet born. Mackey shares this mission, in Nod House and elsewhere both in serial poetry and his neo-baroque fiction, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate.

It strikes me that the white reader who has no gospel tradition, like myself, has to reckon with the importance of the Nativity so evident in Thompson’s painting and honored here in Mackey’s poem. Renaissance motifs are present, both in Thompson’s miming of Piero della Francesca and Mackey’s evocation of “lute’s neck gooseneck.” Even the Immaculate Conception, “Lithe body had at / by one that wasn’t there, hers in  / the // his and her ghost house, near / … .” These lines resonate with the concept “nod house” (otherwise difficult to clarify); for what is a “nod house’ unless it is a reference to place of waking dreams. A tribal dreaming space? The holistic fabric of Mackey’s poetry is inarguable. When I nod, I drift off.

The quote just given, positioning the word “the” as it does, a hook at the end of stanza-like structure illustrates a quality of Mackey’s prosody, that affects my ear and how it has learned to read. Short lines of one word (here “the” and in sequence “again…”, “floor-“, “on”, etc.), placed at the far right margin instigate the forward motion of the poems amid variations and reversals. The terminus ad quem is symbolized by a one word line in the left margin at the end of the poem (a pattern often repeated), the last word hurrying the reader forward, here “thru.” The technique provides a stitching together of material otherwise cut into two, three, or four line segments, these individual lines frequently enjambing.  

Many of Thompson’s images contain a generally rust colored patch of pubic hair. So with the Virgin, “patch of hair / parting / the dark welcoming heaven” mimes this grace note. It is a grace note found elsewhere in Nod House, independent of Thompson’s painting, intimate and sensuous contact among Andoumboulou of mixed and otherwise configured sexes. These are moments of transcendence, for all the bad rap that transcendence has among devotees of the postmodern. “Hand  assessing / her leg mounting skyward … / Wonderment winged but /with/ legs held, hard to miss  what it / meant.” The words are weighted with the materiality (physical sensuality) of what I have called the “immanent sublime.” The artist’s embrace is finally “indelicate” – that indelicacy, amid multiple resonances, being a quality that Mackey shares with Thompson and a grammatical honesty found throughout his work.

 Don Wellman

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